Interview, Perspective

Changing for Real

By Nora Boxer

Renowned teachers and authors Ethan Nichtern and Sharon Salzberg will be leading a retreat on “Real Change” at the Garrison Institute on December 14-16, 2018. We talked with them recently about the nature of both personal and social change, and how creating supportive communities is essential to the practice of Real Change.


Nora Boxer: Why do we paradoxically both want change and fear it?

Ethan Nichtern: Nobody wants to suffer, but we’re suffering individually and as a society because we’ve gotten into habits of doing the same thing over and over. We want things to change, but all we know is how to keep going around in the same circles. But the idea of Buddhist teachings is that you could actually transform. You don’t have to accept things the way they are in the long-term—even if the way to change is to accept things very fully as they are in the short-term. That’s an interesting dilemma.

Sharon Salzberg: We’re maybe afraid of change, but change is happening anyway.

If you’re working to have peace in your own mind, the prospect of being perpetually agitated is not that appealing. On the other hand, you don’t want peace that’s sleepy or numb—so we need to stay engaged. Where is that place where we’re connecting to a bigger picture; seeing differently—yet not removed from care and concern and compassion in everyday life? It’s not easy.

Nora Boxer: Why do we stay attached to what’s familiar—even when it’s clear we’re suffering?

Sharon Salzberg: I think a big reality for a lot of people is that they don’t even feel the suffering. The Buddha said something like, “If we realized how much grasping hurts, we’d realize we were holding onto a hot, burning coal.” So there wouldn’t be a big deliberation about whether we want to let go. It would be like, “Whoa, that hurts.” But because we’re cut off and disconnected, we don’t necessarily feel the pain… until we do.

Sometimes the things we think are just great and are leading us onward are really causing us the most pain. There’s a big difference between feeling the joy of something and clinging to it. And the clinging really hurts, and we think that’s strength or that’s getting on top of things. We think, “It’s going to make me in control”—and it does the opposite. So it’s only through developing awareness that we get to see those patterns.

Nora Boxer: So what does happen when we start to enact personal and social change; when we start to see through personal or societal conditioning?

Ethan Nichtern: I think the first thing that happens is an unfamiliarity, a kind of discomfort that’s not necessarily directly painful. It’s just, “I don’t know what’s happening here.” For example, “I usually walk into this room and try to charm everyone, and now I’m just being silent because I’m on a meditation retreat.” And there’s a kind of tender uncertainty. Then as that goes forward, there’s usually also the experience on a personal level of some lashing out by the old system. I’ve noticed, for example, when you’re working with aggressive thoughts, for a while they fade away, and then sometimes they come back more intensely.

Because the old system does want to try to survive too. That’s the thing about habitual patterns—they like being habitual. I don’t personally believe in reincarnation, but I do like the narrative of it, because it gives you a story where your karma or your habitual tendencies may have evolved over more than one lifetime, which is a good way of looking at why they’re so strong, you know? Like, if I’ve been thinking self-aggressive thoughts for the last 40 lifetimes, then it makes sense that they hold on so tightly.

Sharon Salzberg: I do believe in reincarnation.

Ethan Nichtern: There’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s a lot of the system lashing back, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that in terms of American life right now, that the system that’s trying to end is holding on tighter, in a lot of ways.

Nora Boxer: Yes—so many of us seek social change—change in the way power gets distributed in our world. How can we effect change at the level of sangha, beyond just ourselves?

Ethan Nichtern: Easy question.

Nora Boxer: (Laughs) Yeah, easy question. That’s going to be a one-minute answer, right?

Ethan Nichtern: (Laughs) Well, on the social level, there’s been an overly-simplified answer in Buddhist circles, which is, “If you change yourself, social change will naturally happen.” But that’s like saying if you don’t meditate, you can still experience the benefits of meditation. If you want social change to happen, you have to practice social engagement. I’m not disagreeing with the idea that personal practice will set you up better for that, but especially in the Trump era where American democracy literally might fail—the answer is not that I’m just going to work on myself.

Sharon Salzberg: I have no doubt that if you practice meditation you develop a kind of good-heartedness. But does that then lead you to question, say, urban policy? Not necessarily. I mean, that’s a whole other effort. That’s a whole other education.

Years ago, I was at a conference and somebody was presenting about a program they were doing in Texas, teaching literacy in prison. There was this fiery minister in the audience and he stood up and said something like, “It’s noble work you’re doing, but it’s more like social work if you’re in Texas and you’re not dealing with the incredible racism that infuses the system that sends people to prison.”

What he was articulating was the difference between social work and social justice. Or: the difference between goodheartedness and social change. That’s a big missing piece, I think, for a lot of people. I think we do get goodhearted and more compassionate and more caring, but not everyone knows how to do an analysis of what the societal causes and conditions are. It’s a skill, to look for the chain of causality and thought.

Nora Boxer: What about inevitable or irreversible changes, like old age, sickness, death, disaster?

Sharon Salzberg: There’s often shame or humiliation associated with the notion of having lost control—as though these are things we should be able to control. I keep using this example: Now that I’m older, if I have to enter my birth year online, I have to scroll down for like an hour and a half before I get to the year. It’s ridiculous. Why am I still scrolling? You get to a certain age and it’s not built for us anymore. We have to stay in touch with our own worth despite the entire culture saying, “You just keep scrolling, that’s all right.”

There’s so much letting go. One of the activists I interviewed for my forthcoming book talks about how angry he was all the time, how it started wearing him down. So we asked, “How did you deal with it?” and he said, “I started volunteering in a hospice. Nothing compared to that letting go. It reminded me of the nature of things; how you have to let them take their own time and course.”

People who do work such as hospice always say they’ve been given more than they give. There’s a perspective and an ability to let things be as they are; a recognition that you can’t control someone else’s death process, for example, as much as you want to.

I was just in Raleigh after the hurricane. I found a lot of spirit there. People were talking about how they were finding each other, helping each other. One man’s friend had lived in the neighborhood for a year and didn’t know any of her neighbors. And people started going around saying, “I’m an EMT,” or “I’m a doctor,” or “People have died in these situations because they couldn’t reach a hospital. I want you to reach out to me if you’re worried. Don’t hesitate. We’re here. We might be marooned here.”

Ethan Nichtern: For me, that ties in with the Buddhist emphasis on generosity. Generosity has this dual energy: Not only are you letting go of what you’re holding on to, but you’re also helping somebody. It’s a win/win situation. The practice is actually about equalizing self and other. You also have to practice generosity towards yourself. Either way, you’re contemplating, “What am I holding on to here, and is there a way to soften that?” It’s interesting how much easier that letting go is if you’re in a supportive environment, with others who are also practicing that.

In terms of larger social issues: What are we holding onto about this system that if we trusted the other people around us, we actually could practice letting go of?

Sharon Salzberg: We often find that feeling of trust and connection when we’re working with others, when we’re volunteering or driving people to the polls or helping register people to vote. As soon as you begin the activity, you rarely feel alone. It’s a whole community going forward.

Nora Boxer:What can you say about the nature of change itself?

Ethan Nichtern: The world is by nature impermanent: changes in one’s body, for example, or changes in seasons. There’s a difference between that natural impermanence and wanting to change a habitual pattern, either personal or social. But the relaxation that comes from understanding natural change can actually allow us to deal with the fear associated with changes of habitual patterns. There is always a change found in nature, I think, that mimics a change in habit.

I’m also thinking about Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which is about how certain negative forces can use the shock that comes with sudden change—like 9/11 or a hurricane—to actually deepen the oppressive habitual patterns in the system. So in the desire for social change, I think we also have to be clear what we are imagining the change to lead to. Like, “End capitalism.” Okay. What are you imagining?

Or, “I want to stop being so angry at myself and my parents.” OK, what would that feel like, to be in that space? One of the things I like about Tibetan Buddhism is the emphasis on visualization. What might the world or the self look like, feel like, when it’s more positively aligned, when it’s free from suffering? That can be the hard part.

Nora Boxer: Can you talk about your upcoming “Real Change” retreat?

Sharon Salzberg: I keep reading about an epidemic of loneliness. In England they actually appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Somebody was saying they used to really love that in New York, you could just strike up a conversation with a stranger on a bus, and you’d have a surprising connection. And she said, “Now, everyone’s on the phone so we don’t even talk to each other.”

Social structure is changing. Participation in organized religion is diminishing. What’s going to bring us together—even if it’s not common points of view, but at least some common values—and remind us of one another and how we all do want to be happy? What matters is how connected we feel. How do we open, through awareness and love and kindness, and use that as the basis for seeking social change among a wider body of people?

Ethan Nichtern: In my book The Road Home, I talk about transformation on the personal and social levels, and about what links those two—which is interpersonal transformation, relational transformation. Each of us is usually pretty good at focusing on one of those levels. For example, the newer parents among us are doing “an intensive retreat on the interpersonal level.” Some of us are collecting stars on the Insight Timer or on Headspace, and our personal practice is very strong. Some of us are in DC, protesting. How can we integrate all these levels of transformation into our regular practice? To me, that’s the cutting edge. There’s a growing group of people who really want to deepen their personal and social practices together. That’s the kind of sangha (community) that we’re hoping builds more and more.

Nora Boxer is a fiction writer, poet, and former resident of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. She teaches creative writing at City College of San Francisco and is the communications director for AltruVistas, a global ethical travel company. For more information, please visit her website.

Photo by Caleb Martin on Unsplash

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